The soft stuff matters most: How to create scalable impact in a complex global culture

Shannon Houde
6 min readJan 29, 2019

Martha Herrera Gonzalez is known as a pioneer for how she has taken a global extractives business, Cemex, to its next stage of engagement and embedding of corporate social responsibility (CSR) principles across more than 50 countries. Her message is simple: Dream. Listen. Learn. Act.

Herrera Gonzalez, who joined the building materials company 23 years ago, is director of CSR and director of the Cemex-Tec of Monterrey Center for the Development of Sustainable Communities.

Martha Herrera Gonzalez is a 23-year veteran of building materials company Cemex.

It’s her mission to develop and implement the company’s Global Responsible Business strategy and to embed it into the company’s culture. Herrera figures that since launching this strategy two decades ago, Cemex positively has affected more than 14.1 million people — with the aim of reaching 15 million people by 2020.

During her time at Cemex, one of her key focuses has been to transfer knowledge to the company’s plants on-the-ground about how to develop inclusive and social business models. This has been critical to helping Cemex strengthen its purpose of “building a better future” and offering high-quality products to customers around the world.

Let’s find out a bit more about what Herrera Gonzalez has done as to shift the mindsets of more than 1,500 employees across 59 cement plants and grinding mills, all by using a simple “top-down” and “bottom-up” approach to creating scalable impact.

Shannon Houde: What are you most proud of in terms of what you and your team have achieved within Cemex?

Martha Herrera Gonzalez: The most important thing for me is that we have been able to put ourselves in people’s shoes. It is not only about the strategy or accomplishments. We are, of course, focused on results and impacts. But the most important thing we have done is establish a journey to connect with people.

Houde: Tell us more about the pioneering “bottom-up” Responsible Business strategy roll out to 59 plants and grinding mills globally.

Herrera Gonzalez: This strategy we built makes me feel really connected to people. Before sitting down to identify targets and strategic priorities, we had to understand the culture. So, we visited more than 50 business units and met more than 1,500 people. We organized more than 70 two-day workshops for diverse cross-functional representatives across the plants. It was simple. We sat down with them and listened to their expectations to plan a better stakeholder experience.

Our Responsible Business (RB) strategy has been built on the expectations and strategies of the people around Cemex. This makes it even easier to implement because people are engaged and empowered from the outset of the process.

The RB strategy uses language that resonates and makes sense not only to the core business but also to all our employees and surrounding communities. It underpins Cemex’s purpose of “building a better future” including focusing on four themes:

  1. Education and development of capabilities for employability
  2. Sustainable and resilient infrastructure, and mobility
  3. Social innovation and environmental entrepreneurship
  4. Promoting a culture of environmental protection, health and safety

Some stats from our global rollout are:

  • Collaboration as One Cemex with more than 19 areas
  • Mapped best practices globally
  • Visited more than 300 communities

Houde: How much of your role requires technical skills vs. emotional intelligence/people skills?

Herrera Gonzalez: A mixture of both is needed. We need trust and credibility to shift mindsets and gaining buy-in cross-functionally.

In order to serve our colleagues in-country, we need to understand their main challenges. For that, we need to have the ability to listen and also to understand how to convert the challenges into opportunities for the business. The skills recipe for success to me is:

  • Combining strategic and critical thinking
  • Translating responsible business into the core business strategy
  • Transmitting my emotion and empathy to transform the company and the society
  • Strengthening my own emotional intelligence through working with others in alliances and partnerships
  • Having passion in my heart and my purpose at front of mind

Houde: How do you continue to grow your influence as a change leader?

Herrera Gonzalez: For more than 35 years, I have been consistently challenging myself with learning new things. I am always on a learning journey — learning new ways of doing things, learning what the next big trends are going to be, coming up with fresh, innovative ideas and thinking about how the company can move the needle. This learning journey also is a personal journey of how to be happy and how to make others happy and aligned with purpose.

During my two-decade tenure at CEMEX, one thing has been consistent: every year I commit to getting training to understand myself better. I ask myself: How can I be of more help to my stakeholders? How can I be a better person in order to be an example to others?

If I want to have an impact and a legacy, then I need to try to be the best expression of myself. I need to be able to transform myself before trying to transform others.

Houde: What do you consider the skills for success are to be able to influence up, down and across?

Herrera Gonzalez:

  • Lead through listening is the most important for me. Being empathetic and really listening, understanding and internalizing what people are expecting.
  • Inspire with passion. If you really feel what you are doing with your own passion for the issues or agenda, then that becomes contagious.
  • Learn from failures. We must learn from our actions, those positive and negative, in order to learn from our past experiences and innovate for future actions. We must try. Succeed or fail, we must always learn.
  • Transfer knowledge. In order to create value for others, we need to first understand what they need. We need to make others’ expectations our own. One of the keys is to “be there on the ground,” investing in an emotional way and by taking the time to help others understand what we mean. To transfer knowledge, we need to bring them in with examples/stories/models, to offer them sharing platforms that make this transfer easier.

Houde: What is your recipe for success in terms of building buy-in across a complex and global organization such as Cemex?

Herrera Gonzalez: Our top management is very committed to CSR. From a top-down approach, leadership is focused on really making CSR part of our day-to-day operations and not seen as a complicated add-on issue. We have been developing the key performance (KPI) matrix to prove the business case as well as optimal for stakeholders. We have been converting CSR into something tangible through designing new products and entering new markets that are aligned with our culture, people engagement, risk, impacts, partnerships and stakeholders.

From the bottom up, we have been talking about how to create value at each stage of our operations, within each area of the company. This is a transversal activity of developing a culture to achieve our purpose as a company, as a behavior or philosophy that focuses on the human impacts of our day-to-day activities.

Houde: How do you leverage your regional heads as global champions in-country? How do you keep them motivated and empowered?

Herrera Gonzalez: Firstly, we need to understand each head’s challenges and what they need from us at headquarters in terms of support. Some need help on the ground, others need training and some need us to be there on site. Our goal is to enable them to do their job and help them deliver business results with social impact.

We enable them to be champions. It is about celebrating their job, their accomplishments, their positive impact.

Houde: What advice would you give a younger version of yourself, say a 30-year-old, in terms of influencing decision makers within a complex culture?

Herrera Gonzalez: Same as I give to my children and my team: Always keep learning. Not to take anything for granted. Never feel like we are already there. It is a continuous journey of learning — about yourself first.

Second is to dream. Have big dreams. It is not bad to have big dreams. But make small actions towards those dreams. Doesn’t matter if the dream seems real, make the small actions by bringing others in, listening to them, being empathetic. At the same time, you are helping to make the big dreams of others a reality. Even if it is a small act.

This article was originally published on GreenBiz

EDITOR’S NOTE: Employee engagement is essential to embedding sustainability throughout a company and making it an important and visible part of everyone’s role, but effective execution is an ever-present challenge. Cemex Shared Value and Innovation Manager Mario Gonzalez,and Shannon Houde will host a workshop at GreenBiz 19 in Phoenix, “Shifting Mindsets to Build Cross-Functional Buy-in.” They’ll discuss and expand on Herrera Gonzalez’s leadership of using empathy and role-playing to realize transformational changes in the commitment and creativity of teams. Join the interactive session in February to learn how you can reach the “unconverted” and develop new leaders on the journey towards sustainable business.



Shannon Houde

Shannon is an ICF-certified executive and career coach, and founder of; propelling changemakers forward in for impact.